An Archive of Personal Fragments: Investigating Wang Dahong
Wang Dahong (1917-2018) is often regarded as the father of modern architecture in Taiwan. M+ is home to Wang’s personal archive, donated by his family. The archive includes not only architectural drawings, but also personal essays, notes, letters, photographs, and sketchbooks.
The majority of Wang’s architectural drawings were donated to the National Taiwan Museum in the early 2000s. Considering the significance of his practice, the M+ curatorial team expressed interest in collecting any related material still kept by him and his family. This resulted in a group of materials—generously offered by his family—that is one of the most fragmentary, but also personal, archives in the M+ Collections. It reveals Wang’s multifaceted practice within and beyond the field of architecture as an architect, writer, translator, and poet.
In this article Shirley Surya (Curator, Design and Architecture) and Rebecca Yiu (Archives Assistant) discuss both the challenges and pleasures of organising and understanding the Wang Dahong archive.
Who Was Wang Dahong?
Shirley: Wang was born in Beijing to the Republic of China’s first minister of foreign affairs. He was trained in architecture at Cambridge University and Harvard Graduate School of Design, where his classmates included important architects of his generation like I. M. Pei and Philip Johnson. He was taught by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school.
Wang first returned to China in 1947, before finally settling in Taiwan in 1952, due to the founding of the People’s Republic of China. There, he began his search for an ‘architecture of new China’.
His works—which include more than 100 buildings in Taiwan—were known for their strong sense of proportion, clarity, and simplicity of form. His key works show Wang’s profound understanding, reinterpretation, and integration of both Euro-American modernism and traditional Chinese architecture.
How Was the Archive Collected and Catalogued?
Shirley: As part of our interest in under-represented narratives of modern architecture in Asia, this was one of the first architectural archives that we acquired from outside Hong Kong.
Knowing that the family had donated most of Wang’s architectural drawings to the National Taiwan Museum, we told them that we’d be interested in acquiring anything else they still had that was related to Wang’s life and work. At first, they weren’t sure if there was anything left. A few months later, however, they offered us materials from a personal folder that Wang himself had put together throughout the years. This is why the archive consists of personal documents that are often difficult to identify.
In Europe and America, where there is a more developed archival practice, architectural archives are often put together in a more systematic and comprehensive way. This tends to not be the case in Asia, unless archives come in the form of project archives from architecture firms. We were therefore not surprised to find Wang’s personal archive to be a rather ‘disorderly’ one. We’re grateful to Wang’s family for entrusting us with these materials, as they provide an intimate glimpse into the architect’s interests and work across various fields.
The archive is an example of the reality of ‘incomplete’ archives, and the challenge of constructing histories through fragments.
Rebecca: Out of all of the archives we have at M+, this has been the most challenging one to catalogue and process. It only has 196 items—including photos, negatives, slides, clippings, sketches, correspondence, and architectural drawings—but the challenge came from how fragmented and personal it was.
It took around a year for me to catalogue this archive, from studying Wang Dahong’s life, to cataloguing and storing the material. When I first looked at this archive, I couldn’t tell how many projects it contained. There were architectural drawings and plans, but many of them were from unidentified projects. There were no hints—such as the building’s name or date—as to which projects they belonged to.
Many building projects had no information on how they were revised and developed over time. I needed to figure out which stage of revision in a project that certain drawings belonged to. I carefully studied the mediums (pencil, pen, paper) of different sketches. If they belonged to the same revision, they would be drawn using the same colour, or using papers of the same size and texture. Based on these differences, I could group drawings into different revisions. Then, I could figure out which revision was the latest and earliest based on the changes.
There are still many unidentified architecture projects in this archive. However, people are still updating and researching his work. In the future, we hope that researchers will help further assess the archive and identify these projects in the M+ Research Centre.
What Is in the Archive?
Shirley: Some of the key identified architectural projects in this archive include Hong-Lu Apartment, the unbuilt National Palace Museum in Taiwan, and the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. These projects show the influences and approaches that underpinned most of Wang’s practice. They demonstrate his application of building technologies and materials, redefinition of notions of luxury and simplicity, and thoughtful resolution of multiple cultural influences.
Wang freely referenced archetypes of both European and Chinese classicism. This was not so much to embody a cultural identity, but to evoke certain spatial qualities of existing buildings. While his work is informed by his Chinese ethnic and cultural background, he also aspired to a sense of universality as much as to cultural specificity. His use of spatial concepts—of European or Chinese classicism—was therefore far from simplistic, but often applied with a slight subversion.
This can be seen in Wang’s earlier residential designs. In these, the use of the Mies-ian open plan—prevalent in the design by architects of his generation—was often thwarted by indirect paths through his interiors. This recreated the effect of finding one’s way through the Chinese garden, or the sense of interiority of a Chinese walled house. This was expressed in his design for one of Taiwan’s earliest multi-story apartments, the four-story Hong-Lu Apartment on Jinan Road (1964). Its window-less frontage, enclosed entryway, and circuitous floor plan creates an unfolding effect, as though one is journeying through a Chinese garden.
The apartment’s interior shows Wang’s attempt to resolve multiple classical and modern cultural conceptions of the home. An example is the varied use of the moon gate—traditionally a feature of an outdoor garden—as part of a house facade or interior walls.
Competition Submission for the National Palace Museum in Taiwan
The degree to which Wang sought to express a recognisable cultural identity through architectural design varied for different projects. This is particularly so in his competition scheme for the National Palace Museum of Taiwan (1961). Its overhanging shell roof, a hyperbolic paraboloid, shows how the exploration toward structural innovation seemed as integral as Wang’s concern for a ‘new Chinese architecture’.
It was known that this scheme was the jury’s winning choice in the competition. However, the design was not implemented. Instead, the authorities chose to implement a design by another architect, Huang Baoyu, which was more traditionally Chinese. It was characterised by a monumental traditional Chinese palatial structure, with a yellow roof ridge and green ceramic tiles.
National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall
In designing the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei (1965-1972), Wang faced a similar issue of how design was politicised in the context of 1960s Taiwan. There was an ongoing nationalistic movement advocated by the Taiwanese government. Forms of traditional Chinese architecture were encouraged to augment Taiwan’s cultural identity.
The above photograph of the presentation model shows Wang’s original design of the building. It, along with numerous original plans, reveals his attention to the Hall’s formal and structural integrity, its monumental spatial qualities as a public building, and its relationship to its surroundings. Its roof alludes to a ministerial hat in the ancient Chinese court.
While the building’s scheme was implemented, Wang had to compromise by altering the roof. He was asked to make it more explicit in its association to traditional palatial Chinese roofs. He changed its more rectilinear form into an exaggerated upturned Chinese palatial roof—as seen in the image of the completed building below. Wang considered the building his ‘most difficult project ever’.
Essays and Articles
Shirley: Apart from materials representing Wang’s architectural projects, the archive includes materials that reveal Wang as not only an architect, but a poet, writer, translator, and major cultural figure in Taiwan. These include some wonderful drafts of his published essays. The above essay, ‘Domus (A Study in the Philosophy of Living)’, shows his interest in ritual and habitation, and his aspiration towards a sense of cultural specificity and universality. By citing how the ‘home’ is conceived by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, and the Chinese, Wang was keen on investigating this across cultures.
An interesting detail from this essay draft is the letterhead, which comes from Allied Architects [五聯建築師事務所], a key firms that originated in Shanghai. When Wang Dahong returned to Shanghai around 1947, he met up with four other architects from Shanghai and Hong Kong, and they established Allied Architects in Shanghai. The names of these architects—including Wang Dahong—are included in the letterhead.
The archive includes five original articles published between 1943–1947 that feature Wang Dahong’s early designs as a Harvard Graduate School of Design student and graduate.
The earliest article, ‘Variety of Houses from Identical Prefabricated Units of General Panel Corp., designed by Harvard Students’ published in New Pencil Points (1943), features Wang’s work, as well as that of his classmate I. M. Pei. It shows the creative application of a prefabricated wood-panel system co-designed by Konrad Wachsmann and Wang’s teacher Walter Gropius. In the article, someone has underlined the sentence, ‘The house on these two pages was designed by Dahong Wang’.
Personal Sketches, Notes, and Unknowns
Rebecca: In addition to the architectural projects and the published materials, Wang’s archive contains dozens of correspondence, essays and other writings, personal sketches, and miscellaneous items. This is why this archive can be considered the most personal archive that we have at M+.
Most of these items offer very few clues as to why or when they were made. Many papers have sketches or notes on both sides of the sheet, but often appear to be unrelated and done at completely different times. One sketch includes a strange landscape drawing with a clock in the sky, and another a flower pot with a butterfly titled in French Le Papillon Blanc (White Butterfly).
The above sketch of unidentified furniture includes chairs and dressing tables (known as coiffeuse in French, which was written next to the sketches by Wang). These were sketched on the back of a page featuring a draft of the introduction to a science fiction novel was working on for decades titled Phantasmagoria, which was finally published in 2013.
This shape above is clearly very special. I can’t identify it, but it reoccurs both in a sketchbook and in his unidentified sketches. It could be an imagined design that was never intended to be built. I don't know what kind of building it’s supposed to be. It looks a bit like an office, since there are so many desks inside.
Shirley: These personal items show many different facets of Wang Dahong. Fluent in English, Chinese, and French, Wang was also a prolific translator and literary enthusiast. The archive contains multiple examples of poetry transcripts and translations, such as the above draft translation of T. S. Eliot’s poem Song into Chinese.
Above is a translation of part of a poem by the Greek poet George Seferis, handwritten by Walter Gropius and sent to Wang Dahong in a letter. Wang later re-typed this poem into his own company letterhead. This seems to indicate Wang’s affinity to the poem’s call for simplicity in one’s art, which Wang aspired to. Wang’s complex sentiment of simplicity is not about asceticism, nor is it mutually exclusive to luxury or elegance. It is poignantly expressed in the last paragraph of his article ‘Domus (A Philosophy of Living)’:
"What pattern shall our life take under ideal social conditions? The great religious leaders teach a life of simplicity. And simplicity is the keynote underlying all harmonious and full life. Yet, it is not the monastic simplicity, and austerity. The pattern is set upon simplicity and austerity. Yet, there shall be elegance and luxury. Not the elegance of fashion, nor the luxury coveted by the bourgeoisie and preached by Hollywood."
This inclination for spartan luxury is distilled in this lovely new year greeting card for his company. The repeated red Chinese characters that read ‘Happy New Year’ trickle down the gold-stamped greeting card designed by Wang.
As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). This interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.